Driven to Resistance: Taxi Driver Suicides in Korea and the US
written by: Andrea Schnitzer (ISC, Editor)
edited by: Katelyn Hemmeke (ISC, Editor)
On a clear, sunny day in December of last year, a 57-year-old taxi driver surnamed Choi poured flammable substances on his body and set himself on fire in front of the National Assembly inside his cab. In his suicide note, he concluded, “I sacrifice this body hoping that one day all taxi workers around the country can rise up like flames and receive proper compensation, and be able to live like people" and "I hope you will continue fighting until Kakao Carpool is shut down.”
He was protesting a “carpooling” app launched by Kakao Corporation, which has a messaging app connecting over 95% of the Korean population. Its subsidiary, Kakao Mobility, also launched Kakao Taxi, an app that collects consumer data and connects taxi drivers and riders for a 20% fee that is taken out of the drivers’ earnings.
The second man to take his life in protest of the carpool service was 65-year-old Lim, an individual private taxi driver who had participated in large-scale anti-carpool protests in December in front of the National Assembly. His protests apparently reaching deaf ears, the suicide letter found in his car in Gwanghwamun, a popular area for protests, met a wider audience: in it he wrote, “Taxi work is too hard...I absolutely can’t go on living like this.”
The third, Kim, a 62-year-old member of an individual taxi union, had been to a protest at 11 am the morning he ran his car up to the National Assembly grounds, doused himself in oil, and burnt himself alive. On his car was written, “For us to live, Kakao app has to be erased.” There was also a call for solidarity: “Unity is the only path. Let’s win through struggle.” It was the third sacrificial protest in as many months.
Most recently on May 15th, a 76-year-old taxi driver surnamed Ahn set himself on fire near Seoul Plaza and passed away before he reached the hospital. Stuck to his car was a sign that read “Tada out” referring to a premium ride-hailing service that taxi drivers say is cutting into their livelihood.
So, what exactly is the problem with ride-sharing apps? To consumers, the taxi industry has enjoyed a monopoly for too long, headed by overbearing taxi companies that have lobbied for years to control the market through regulation. Many consumers have cheered the advent of the car-hailing app age. Rides could be cheaper. Even with a low base fare of around 4600 won (around $4 USD) for a late-night 2 km trip, taxi fares in Korea are still viewed as unnecessarily high, with riders complaining that fares are rising despite gas prices dropping. Although company drivers sometimes make less than minimum wage after paying the daily company fee of 148,000 won ($130), taxpayers are resistant to the idea of subsidizing their wages. The average consumer, with a stagnating wage, feels financially squeezed, lowering their empathy for the drivers.
On the other hand, Kakao's taxi app, which links drivers to riders, also gave a way for customers to rate drivers. In particular, women fed up with sexually suggestive remarks or insensitive comments felt a power shift. In the past, they would take pictures of taxi license plates before getting in to ensure some kind of check on bad drivers. Now, there would be a record stored in an app. Yet, complementary systems are necessary to prevent abuse of such rating systems since taxi drivers are also victims of violence from customers (e.g. sexual harassment of female drivers, physical violence, insults) and also require protections. Ultimately, improving the customer experience, especially women’s, and improving taxi drivers’ working conditions need not be mutually exclusive.
Shin, a taxi driver of 10 years, shares her experience working first for a company and now as an individual private taxi owner. In a face-to-face interview with the ISC, she says, “Taxi drivers had a declaration in which they stated a code of conduct towards passengers, including a pledge to provide a clean taxi and to refrain from needless idle chit-chat with riders,” which would resolve the issue of harassment. She also emphasizes the need to punish customers that inflict verbal and physical abuse on drivers. The taxi industry should “Decrease working hours from 12 hours a day to 8 hours and create more jobs. This would help with work satisfaction and improve customer service.” Shin argues that taxi company profits should be redistributed more fairly into higher wages for taxi drivers. The taxi industry is a highly regulated public good: the local government regulates fares and issues permits. Thus, she proposes public solutions: the local government could create public call centers with fees to subsidize the transport of vulnerable sectors of the population and short-distance rides. It could also subsidize the industry to benefit consumers and create a virtuous cycle. The industry could regain customer trust by implementing stronger reporting systems for bad drivers.
Directly addressing the concerns and views of consumers, Shin notes that while taxi companies might lobby, it is ultimately the responsibility of local governments to regulate taxi service, including fees. Furthermore, she notes that taxi companies received subsidies from local governments but did little to improve service or labor conditions. As regards to rising fares, Shin responds that Korea's cab fares are pegged to inflation. Moreover, she worries that as new online platforms take over larger shares of the taxi market, fares would be, in effect, deregulated. For example, the premium service Tada, despite charging fares 20% higher than that of taxis, is still operating at a deficit.
To become an individual private taxi driver, Shin needed to be accident free for three straight years before she could buy an 80 million won ($70,550) taxi driving permit. According to her, over 90% of company taxi drivers are represented by small (50-200 member) unions that are in fact controlled by the companies they work for. Many that driver for taxi companies are past retirement age and their contracts need to be renewed every year making it easier for taxi companies to pressure and intimidate them. She notes that only through the democratization of the company based union and through the creation of an industry wide union can the lives of taxi drivers improve.”
On March 8th, 2019, Kakao Mobility, the taxi industry, and the ruling Democratic Party reached a compromise to settle the disputes between the parties in the Taxi & Carpool social compromise body. The body represented only company taxi drivers, not the individual ones like Ms. Shin, and is still pending implementation. The body decided that despite Kakao’s carpooling service being initially declared illegal, negotiations with the government have sanctioned its operating hours during peak rush hour times in the mornings and evenings, excluding weekends. Ultimately, this new change in Korean law sets a precedent to turn professional jobs into gigs, exacerbating the issue of irregular work. One woman who tested Kakao carpool as a driver during its pilot program found that she earned less than half the minimum wage, barely covering her gas costs while Kakao took 20% of the cost of the ride.
Ms. Shin says that after the government deal, company taxi drivers still don’t know what their wages will be and echoes the sentiment of individual taxi drivers, who criticized the government negotiations as a “radical step back” for drivers. Not only does the new deal open up a space for ride-hailing apps where there was none before, it also offers little to the taxi drivers. One of the provisions of the agreement provides a monthly wage and the elimination of the daily company fee. Yet, the current law already requires monthly wages. The fact that such a law already exists and is being violated by companies implementing the daily company fee dilutes the effectiveness and meaning of such provision. While the agreement covers a monthly wage and eliminates the daily company fee, this does not affect individual taxi drivers.
Taxi drivers are still saddled with debt on rapidly depreciating taxi permits (bought from retiring drivers, who view reselling their permits as part of their retirement savings plan).
Similarly, drivers in New York must sometimes pay up to $6,000 in debt a month on medallions. Once purchased for around $1 million apiece, they are now going for around $200,000, trapping drivers in debt in modern-day indentured servitude. As an added burden, they must now compete with more cars on the road while they receive no guarantees of a living wage. Likewise, in the EU, despite a ruling by its top court declaring Uber an “employer” rather than simply a platform to connect its users, taxi drivers in Paris are protesting the increased competition driving down their wages.
The driver suicides in Seoul were not isolated incidents. In New York, nine drivers, including an Uber and Lyft driver, have committed suicide in the past year and a half. Douglas Schifter, after posting on Facebook that he needed to work 100 hours a week to survive, pulled his black taxi up to New York City Hall and shot himself in the head; his suicide note stated, “I am not a slave and I refuse to be one.” Roy Kim, a Korean immigrant in many ways representative of the many immigrants who purchased medallions to legally work as taxi drivers in New York to fulfill the “American dream,” had over $500,000 in debt when he hung himself. Nicanor Ochisor, Kenny Chow, Abdul Saleh, Danilo Castillo, and Alfredo Perez were the others. Fuasto Luna, an Uber driver who committed suicide by jumping in front of an oncoming New York City subway, cited his inability to make enough money to survive. In late March, Lu Wu, a Lyft driver of 5 years, also took his own life. Loans taxi drivers take out to purchase driving permits are so high that they use their houses as collateral on their loans and face losing everything they own. Only recently did New York instate a minimum salary, with Uber and Lyft, the two largest ride hailing apps, in strong opposition.
In Korea, many drivers call their profession “one’s last job in life.” The economic restructuring that took place after the 1997 IMF financial crisis forced many workers into early retirement, pushing them into industries like taxi driving. Similarly in the US, the 2008 recession forced many full-time workers into lower-paid work with fewer benefits. At first, a limited number of taxi licenses ensured that the market was not saturated with drivers so that each one had enough work to survive. But the deregulation of ride-hailing apps meant that nearly anyone with a car could be a driver, snatching up work from qualified workers.
What does it mean to stand in solidarity with workers? For the taxi drivers calling out for recognition of their struggles, this is a key question and an opportunity to question how our current economic system is changing. For years now, the public has heard about the emergence of the 4th Industrial Revolution, the gig economy, and the so-called sharing economy, with ride-hailing apps among the myriad of forms that the new economic order is taking.
However, the public should demand safe public transportation and living wages for all workers rather than handing over transportation to private hands made possible by the “revolving door” between corporations and government. As Ms. Shin pointed out, the VP of Kakao is in the process of getting appointed as a Blue House aide. In the US, Uber’s legal counsel worked in the Obama administration, its communications director for John McCain, and its CEO is on the Board of Directors for The New York Times Company. As Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance said, Uber has hired former regulators exactly because they know how to dismantle regulations. While externalizing costs to workers and users of their new systems, the “sharing” economy is funneling money up to the politically-connected wealthy: wages sink and working hours lengthen in a race to the bottom among workers while consumers lose control over their personal information and their needs are monopolized by a few companies.
Moreover, we live in a society that does not allow the average person leeway for failure. Even if taxi drivers came up with creative new goods and services, they usually have neither the capital nor the connections to bring them to fruition. There is no viable social safety net to rescue them, and as the latest Korean taxi negotiations show, their “representatives” are not representing their interests. The so-called Republic of Korea is more likely to represent business interests than facilitate the building of a social consensus around the issue of the 4th Industrial Revolution.
Ms. Shin says we need a “social agreement” before we blindly accept that all work will be automated. “Should we accept this, despite all the destruction it creates?” she asks. We need to question whether we want a future decided by business leaders. Expecting taxi drivers to work for minimum wage or quit and live on state benefits is in effect telling them to live in poverty. And that’s why they can’t help but hang their lives in this struggle.
- Tada is a rental car agency that uses freelance drivers on their platform. Current law strictly prohibits driving for compensation outside of the taxi system. Thus, Tada’s provision of a paid driver violates the law. Tada's freelance drivers would not be considered workers by law. Thus, they would be vulnerable to long hours and low pay. Furthermore, they are driving with personal car insurance which does not apply when driving commercially.
- According to the article, Meera Joshi, the city’s taxi commissioner, was at the vigil and urged drivers who are struggling emotionally to reach out to the city for help, making the suicide an individual mental health problem. In contrast, Victor Salazar, a taxi driver for more than 26 years, said, “We are right now in a very deep crisis. We must concentrate ourselves as workers and the people we are.”